In this time of constant bickering between the right and the left, the movie Avatar has become the highest grossing film in history. To achieve these astonishing grosses of $1.86 Billion (besting Cameron’s own Titanic in record time), the movie has appealed across all demographics and all political profiles. This is not to say that right wing critics didn’t try to discourage their partisans as Jonah Goldberg points out.
The film has been subjected to a sustained assault from many on the right, most notably by Ross Douthat in the New York Times, as an “apologia for pantheism.”
It would be a cop-out on my part to say the huge success was due only to the gee whiz special effects and the immersive 3D environment. I think the spirituality that Douthat critiques is actually a huge part of the movie’s appeal. The hero Jake Sully, a cynical deeply wounded vet goes to work for the Military Industrial Complex to enable the ecological rape of the planet Pandora. In the course of his undercover journey he is brought to understand the native Na’Vi worship of nature and belief that we are all connected. He works with the natives to overcome the foreign invaders and even the representative of the evil corporation (though not their hired Blackwater mercenary) comes to see the error in their ways.
Joseph Campbell in his epic series with Bill Moyers called the Hero’s Journey, got to the nature of why we are pulled to myths like Avatar.
Campbell: “Have you ever read Sinclair Lewis‘ Babbit?” Moyers: “Not in a long time.” Campbell: “Remember the last line? ‘I have never done the thing that I wanted to do in all my life.’ That is a man who never followed his bliss.”
We are as a people in a desperate search for meaning. Our collective awakening in the last 18 months to the follies of salvation through materialism has created an opening to follow our bliss. But we are trapped in this Interregnum, “uncertain and afraid as the clever hopes expire of a low dishonest decade” (Auden). What Cameron proposes is that we may be physically broken (like Jake Sully), but we have the mental and spiritual capacity to do the right thing–do something with our life that matters. And so here we are brought up against the great American dilemma–the battle between the Ayn Rand cult of selfish individualism and the Golden Rule at the heart of all monotheistic religions to “do unto others as you would have them do unto you”. The great religious scholar, Karen Armstrong believed that these two vectors could be reconciled and that “the gift of monotheism is that this sense of individual responsibility (that we can exist as distinct beings from the tribe) is coupled with the constant injunctions for Islam, Judaism and Christianity for a deep altruism.”
Tom Friedman in his column this morning casts the dialectic in a different light, looking at two different value systems: situational and sustainable.
Leaders, companies or individuals guided by situational values do whatever the situation will allow, no matter the wider interests of their communities. A banker who writes a mortgage for someone he knows can’t make the payments over time is acting on situational values, saying: “I’ll be gone when the bill comes due.”
People inspired by sustainable values act just the opposite, saying: “I will never be gone. I will always be here. Therefore, I must behave in ways that sustain — my employees, my customers, my suppliers, my environment, my country and my future generations.”
It’s clear that our way out of the Interregnum is through the kind of sustainable values embodied in Avatar. If Gramsci is right–“that the old is dying, and the new cannot be born”–then at least our clear view of the old (situational) and the new (sustainable), can help us move past this interregnum era.